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What you will Find in Today's News:

Diaco and Oregon's Taggart need no introductions

NU's JD Spielman burst on the scene against Arkansas State, now takes on vital role after first game as receiver

Booker's wild night; dynamite return men square off; dueling new 3-4 defenses

Mike Riley's friends are his biggest fans. But Saturday, a few will root harder for the Oregon Ducks

Ferguson on track for Nebraska

Decoding Langsdorf: Nebraska’s Love Of The Sail Concept

Let’s Talk “That” Defense

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Diaco and Oregon's Taggart need no introductions

No name tags. Everybody's quite familiar here.

Heck, Willie Taggart saw Tommie Frazier up close before Husker fans even knew he was. He had a sideline view for Taylor Martinez's first sprint to the end zone as Nebraska's quarterback. He's gone head-to-head against Bob Diaco defenses three times too.

Step back first, though, to when he was a teenager. Taggart attended the same West Manatee High School in Bradenton, Florida, that Frazier did. He was his backup at quarterback before leading the team to a state championship himself as a junior.

"I wanted to win like he did... Football was important to him," Taggart said this week at Oregon's press conference. "I learned that playing behind him as a young sophomore."

They're only in occasional contact now. Taggart has been pretty busy rising up the coaching ranks. It was seven years ago when he was hired as the youngest head coach in FBS football at age 34. He took over Western Kentucky and his first assignment was to take a team that finished 0-12 the year before into Memorial Stadium to face probably Bo Pelini's best Husker team.

That quarterback named Martinez ripped off a 46-yard touchdown run on Nebraska's third play of the game, the play that introduced everyone to Martinez's burst. Nebraska won 49-10. It wasn't a fair fight. Yet Taggart was setting a high standard for his team even then. "Our goal was to make them earn everything they got," he told reporters after the game, "and we didn't do that."

His team won two games that year. Then seven the next, and seven again the year after. South Florida hired him.

The Bulls had won just three games the year before. Taggart had them at 8-5 by Year 3. Then 10-2 last year. Oregon hired him. It's a fair fight now.

While he was at South Florida, his team hooked up with Diaco's UConn squad three times while both were members of the American Athletic Conference. Taggart's Bulls won all three games: 17-14 in 2014, 28-20 in 2015, and 42-27 last year in Tampa.

South Florida had 316 yards rushing in that most recent win, and the Bulls' standout quarterback Quintin Flowers had 370 total yards with a hand in five touchdowns.

It's a new year, new settings, new personnel. But Diaco doesn't dismiss that the familiarity the two coaches have matters to some degree.

"Absolutely. I would think that Coach has a pretty good idea of the things I like to do. I have a pretty good idea of the things he likes to do," Diaco said.

At the same time, both coaches are still learning about their players, and how they respond in game settings. 

"They're just getting started. We're just getting started," Diaco said. "So there's part of that. There's a growth development process. This is not instant by any means. And the way that we work, even more than that, is not instant by any means.

"We don't sell the farm, so to speak. We're deeply entrenched with defending and how to do it properly. So we'll work through our process. We've got an understanding of their offense. He's got an understanding of our defense. He's a great coach and a good guy."

What does Diaco first think of when he thinks of Taggart's offenses?

"A staple of Coach Taggart offenses is that they're tough," Diaco said. "He's a tough guy. He loves to run the football. ... There's a lot of window dressing that goes on, but they run the football, and they run it well. That's been a hallmark of all his teams. They always run it well and this team is no different."


Brian Christopherson

JD Spielman, above, had the second-most targets among Nebraska receivers last week and will play a big role against Oregon’s typical coverage schemes if the Huskers are to win Saturday at the famously loud Autzen Stadium.

NU's JD Spielman burst on the scene against Arkansas State, now takes on vital role after first game as receiver

LINCOLN — On Nebraska quarterback Tanner Lee’s final two passes of Saturday’s 43-36 win over Arkansas State — both third-down throws — his target wasn’t Stanley Morgan or De’Mornay Pierson-El, the two receivers fans might expect to get the first look.

It was freshman slot receiver JD Spielman. Both passes fell incomplete — Lee threw low on the first and Spielman was well covered on the second — but the two plays speak to Spielman’s importance to the offense. He was the target on four of Lee’s last eight passes, and his seven targets were second to Morgan’s nine targets on the night.

Coach Mike Riley just wants Spielman, who had a 99-yard kickoff return for a touchdown, to get more good chances to catch the ball. Spielman caught two passes, and only one of the seven targets could be termed a drop.

“My only disappointment in the game is that we really didn’t get him going much as a receiver,” Riley said Monday. “We just have to get more of that.”

Against Oregon’s 3-4 defense — coordinated by Jim Leavitt — Spielman may again get a lot of work. Leavitt’s defensive plan, Riley said, tends to rely on two coverage schemes — Cover 3 and “Quarters” coverage, which is what former Nebraska defensive coordinator Mark Banker often used. Riley and offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf also call quarters coverage “Cover 8.”

Cover 3 tends to deploy both corners and one safety to protect the deep pass. In quarters, four defensive backs tend to be responsible for downfield coverage in their quarter of the field. The latter coverage can be susceptible to deep passes, as those who watched Nebraska’s 2015 defense may recall.

Both coverages, too, can be exploited by a solid, shifty slot receiver. In Nebraska’s case, that’ll be the 5-foot-9, 180-pound Spielman.

“He’s critical for the kind of coverages they play,” Langsdorf said. “They do a nice job of changing things up, disguising different looks, but that inside receiver is big.

“A lot of times, he’s critical in finding a hole in the zone, whether it’s Cover 8 or Cover 3. Like any receiver, getting him into it early and getting him a few touches — especially a young guy playing on the road for the first time — you want to get him in a groove fast.”

Spielman’s first career touch in Saturday’s game — the kickoff return — went for a touchdown. He started pointing to the student section at the Arkansas State 40-yard line, which might have triggered a penalty if the official’s back hadn’t been turned.

Spielman’s dad, NFL Vikings General Manager Rick Spielman, joked with his son afterward that, if JD was going to make that kind of play, he shouldn’t point. Now, JD knows.

“It still hasn’t really hit me yet that that was my first ever college play, was a kick return for a touchdown,” Spielman said.

Saturday was Spielman’s first game as a receiver, too. He was a prolific running back at Eden Prairie (Minn.) High School who averaged more than 12 yards per carry as a senior, but only 151 yards receiving that season. Spielman may surpass that figure before he reaches conference play.

Nebraska recruited Spielman to play receiver — he turned down hometown Minnesota because he wanted to “experience what it was like to live on your own without your parents 15 minutes away” — and he redshirted last season as he learned the position. NU nearly played Spielman as a true freshman but held off, in part because Jordan Westerkamp was a stalwart as the Huskers’ slot receiver.

“He had to make that jump and show that he’s developed into being a wideout, which he has done,” receivers coach Keith Williams said. “He studies hard, he works hard, it means something to him.”

Spielman also has a secret weapon that should be a poster for kids playing multiple sports in high school. Spielman was a prep lacrosse star.

In that sport, he said, he had to learn to have open-field vision and good lateral footwork that has translated to receiver.

“A lot of my (receiver) footwork didn’t come from football, because in high school I played running back, and so I never really had to know much footwork,” Spielman said. “It was mostly ‘run north or south’ type stuff. Lacrosse is where I gained it. I needed more footwork there, and lacrosse helped with my hand-eye coordination.”

Spielman flashed those talents when he caught a second-down fade pass from Lee that gained 35 yards and set up the Huskers’ final touchdown of the opener. Spielman bolted past the corner and ran down Lee’s pass near the sideline with an over-the-shoulder catch.

It’s the kind of play that makes him happy he chose football over lacrosse at Ohio State.

Arkansas State's Blaise Taylor recovers the punt he dropped before returning it for a first-quarter touchdown at Memorial Stadium on Saturday, the start of wild game for Nebraska special teams coach Scott Booker.

Booker's wild night; dynamite return men square off; dueling new 3-4 defenses

Wearing a smile, Scott Booker recounted a wild Saturday night.

“Two onside kicks, two safeties, two special-teams touchdowns …” he said.

His first game as Nebraska special teams coach was, well, memorable.

Booker cringed as Arkansas State’s Blaise Taylor returned a punt 63 yards for a touchdown in the first quarter. Then, on the ensuing kickoff, Nebraska redshirt freshman JD Spielman sped 99 yards for a TD.

“Ten guys really got on a body there, and JD did a great job of hitting the return where it was supposed to be hit,” Booker said. “We had some great blocks — (Jack) Stoll, (Connor) Ketter, Conor Young. Those guys did a tremendous job, and then there were other guys who did, too.”

Arkansas State’s long punt return became complicated when Taylor initially dropped the ball.

“We had good initial coverage lanes,” Booker said. “But we had a couple guys who need to make sure they get off blocks a little better. The ball went to the ground, our coverage kind of converged, and from there you could kind of see things fall apart.”

Nebraska recovered one onside kick, but failed to cover the late attempt that nearly led to disaster. Arkansas State recovered the ball after it popped high into the air over De'Mornay Pierson-El's head.

“I think we can rally to the ball a little bit better,” Booker said. “But, you know, the ball bounces in crazy ways. But at the same time, we’ve got to get on that. In the future, we’re going to make sure we do.”

Lightbourn impresses: Nebraska sophomore punter Caleb Lightbourn is striving for improved consistency this season.

Saturday seemed like a good start; he averaged 42.4 yards on five punts, including a 54-yarder.

“Even Caleb would tell you it’s probably not as consistent as he could be,” Booker said. “We’re happy with where he started, but I think that he can be even more consistent. I think he will be. He’s trying every day to perfect that consistent leg swing and that muscle memory that a punter needs.”

One more special-teams note: Oregon will present another challenge. Running back Tony Brooks-James returned the season's opening kick 100 yards for a touchdown against Southern Utah. Don't change the channel when he or Spielman drops back deep to return. 

Smooth preparation against 3-4: Huskers head coach Mike Riley said Monday he liked having his offense play regularly against a 3-4 during camp and then prepare for a 4-3 week to week, rather than the other way around.

Offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf agreed Tuesday. With Oregon — like the Huskers — transitioning to a 3-4 this year, the Huskers are finding this week of preparation feels familiar.

“It’s been a good benefit for us all through fall camp having that work on the 3-4,” Langsdorf said. “They do play some four-down looks, so they change it up nicely.”

The variety of rush looks from a three-man front makes the preparation needed more extensive.

“They can really balance you up and then they can bring a four-man pressure without having to blitz you,” Langsdorf said. “And you don’t know where it’s coming from. In a four-down look, you’re identifying the defensive lineman pretty easily. … You have to be on the same page and communicating up front, and the identification of the fronts will be big.

Of course, the advantage for Nebraska here is also an advantage for the Ducks, who also faced a newly installed 3-4 from defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt through camp.

More on the Ducks defense: Speaking of Leavitt, he joined Willie Taggart’s staff after a successful two-year stint at Colorado.

The Buffaloes last year finished 18th in the nation in scoring defense (20.5 points allowed per game), 17th in total defense (328.3 yards) and eighth in yards allowed per play (4.7).

“They’re a quarters, cover-3 team,” Riley said of Leavitt’s new outfit. “They had a young defense a year ago and some of these guys have had the benefit now of playing. We’ll face that kind of new-look, Oregon deal. When Chip (Kelly) was there, they were 3-4, went away from it and now they’re back into it.”

One question is if Clemson graduate transfer defensive tackle Scott Pagano will play. He broke a bone in his foot during the Tigers' national championship game win, had offseason surgery and has not yet returned to game action. Elsewhere, Ducks sophomore linebacker Troy Dye earned Football Writers Association of America freshman All-America honors in 2016 and led Oregon with 91 tackles (13 for loss) and 6½ sacks.

Dye got off to a good start against Southern Utah, recording 10 tackles (two for loss), a sack and an interception. 

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